SÁO PAULO, Brazil -- On a June morning, just hours after protests over public transport, health and education had mushroomed into a nationwide movement, someone posted a video on YouTube. With dramatic music in the background, a masked figure speaking in a voice generated by a computer program urged protesters to unite behind "5 causas," or causes.
Compared with the pocketbook issues fueling the protests, most of them were rather esoteric. Among them, removal of Brazil's Senate president and declaring public corruption a “heinous crime,” theoretically making it subject to tougher punishment.
But two days later, even as officials of major cities buckled to demands for lower bus fares, the “5 causas” had gone viral, and the video built to its current 1.7 million hits. The causes were posted on Facebook event pages and the subject of protest signs around the country, although many protesters -- and experts -- didn’t really understand them.
And in short order, two of the causes promoted in the mysterious video were officially adopted by the government. President Dilma Rousseff announced “five pacts with Brazil,” and declared her support for the “heinous crime” designation. Congress quickly passed it, and then backed another one of the “causes" by reversing itself on a constitutional amendment dividing investigative and criminal prosecution between government entities.
It’s hard to be sure. Brazil’s politicians have now moved on to more concrete reform proposals. But the rapid spread of this and other videos launched during the protest movement illustrate the volatile nature of Internet activism. And it serves as a cautionary lesson about how public policy is made in the age of social media.
In Brazil, the protest movement was marked by an ever-changing list of sometimes contradictory demands. A pair of English-language videos quickly changed the conversation as well. The government struggled to respond to the demands of the street.
Contacted online by the Los Angeles Times, a man who claims he was behind the "5 causas" video says he made it up by himself early one morning, attributing it to the hacker group Anonymous, even though he had no association with it. He borrowed liberally to find ideas that he thought would motivate people. He matched his words to a video of a figure dressed in a Guy Fawkes mask because he thought that would get attention, and he used Internet marketing tools to spread the video.
He would not identify himself, instead using the online pseudonym Mario Lopes Semnome, which means Mario No Name Lopes. He said he was a married father who lives in Rio de Janeiro state. He proved he had access to the YouTube channel by posting a key phrase on it, but he could not prove that he had made up the list by himself. He said he hopes the experience of doing it will help him land a job.
An administrator of the largest “Anonymous Brasil" Facebook page pointed to a video the group posted claiming that the “5 causas” didn’t come from them -- but added that because of the nature of Anonymous, no published material attributed to it can be considered “official, genuine or original.”
Asked about the similarities between the YouTube figure’s five causes and Rousseff’s “five pacts,” a presidential spokesman said the pacts “were the result of the interpretation of the will of the streets,” but that they were not tied to the actions of any particular group.
Folha de S. Paulo, a right-leaning newspaper known for its anti-corruption coverage, dismissed the “heinous crime” designation as “cheap populism ... that will only make our penal system less coherent.” The leftist Carta Capital magazine called the measure futile since the real problem is "getting the corrupt and those that corrupt to face judgment” in the first place.
After the protests, the Supreme Court for the first time since the constitution was approved in 1988 ordered a member of Congress to jail. But lawyers can keep appeals going indefinitely.
“These officials would still benefit from a very morose justice system, with excessive checks and balances like unlimited appeals," said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a political analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington.
The proposal was actually put forward two years ago by a member of Congress from one of Brazil’s small parties. But the YouTube activist said he had no idea about that and didn’t remember where he first heard of it. He grabbed it from a discussion on a Facebook page.
The constitutional amendment about separating investigative and prosecutorial functions, known as PEC 37, had already been pushed by mainstream journalists. Opposition to the amendment was Cause 1 in the video.